Skip to main content

Nashville's First Schools and Public School System

September 22, 2018

If you're like me, and often find very little when researching the history of Nashville schools, here's a blog post that might help out - a brief history of Nashville schools.

Last September, my blog post discussed how Nashville schools approached school integration. Continuing with the theme of education, and working my way backwards, this month's post is about Nashville's first schools and first school system. And considering I'll be discussing bits and pieces of 5 different schools, plus how the Nashville public school system came to be, my goal is to keep this as brief as possible. We'll see how that turns out. 

Working my way chronologically forward from 1786, I'm starting with the first school in existence in Nashville...

Nashville's First Schools

1. What was Nashville's first school - not first public school - just what was THE first school? 

The first school to exist in Nashville/Davidson County, as far as I can tell, was Davidson Academy

I'm not sure if the Davidson Academy in existence today has any ties to the original; it doesn't say anything about it on their About page. I am curious about this though, if anyone reading knows a definitive answer, I'd love to find out.

The Davidson Academy I'm referring to though was founded before Tennessee was even a state, and North Carolina was still in charge of things in this area. In 1786, the school was chartered by the North Carolina legislature, with Rev. Thomas Craighead as a teacher. Craighead was also Nashville's first minister. He was invited here by James Robertson and other pioneers in hopes that he'd establish a Presbyterian church and school. 

The residents promised him 640 acres of land for use, and to pay him 50 pounds annually, for 3 years. So Craighead established his mission by mounting a stump and preaching to anyone who would listen.

His plan for the school was to emphasize classical education - Greek and Latin - to a small group of students. 

What happened to the school?

Davidson Academy eventually became Cumberland College (with Presbyterian ties), which then became the University of Nashville in 1825. Phillip Lindsley became the president of the small school, passing up 2 other great offers. He remained with the school until 1850, when he resigned, having graduated 432 students. 

What is the University of Nashville known as today?

Well, that's a loaded question, but the following schools today can trace their roots back to the University of Nashville, and therefore also to Davidson Academy: Vanderbilt University (the Medical School and Peabody College), Montgomery Bell Academy, and USN (University School of Nashville). Below, you can see a copy of a diploma from the University of Nashville.


2. What is the oldest school of Nashville's Public School System?

The answer to this one is Robertson Academy.

As far as I can tell, and according to the book A Bicentennial Chronicle...Metropolitan Public Schools 1976, Robertson Academy was founded in 1806 as a part of the act created by the U.S. Congress, where the Federal Government ceded to the state of Tennessee certain lands with the condition that the state would appropriate 100,000 acres of this land, for the use of academies throughout the state. From that act, the state then established academies in each of the 27 counties in the state, at the time. Therefore, Davidson County opened Robertson Academy in honor of James Robertson. 

When it opened, the first building was just a log cabin located on what is now Blackman Road, quite a distance away from the City of Nashville. That was the school's location until about 1911, when the trustees obtained permission to dispose of the old property to build anew. Four acres of the Overton estate was given by John Thompson for the new grounds, and the new school building was erected the following year. The school was gradually added on to over the years, with only the unfortunate occurrence of a fire in 1932 to halt the progression. But luckily, a new building was erected the following year, and it too was gradually added on to over time. 

Those early years of its existence are quite interesting to read about though. The original building had about 4 windows in total - 2 on one side of the building, and 2 on the other side with a door. It also included a fireplace, though that pretty much goes without saying. I only mention it because the benches the students sat on (rough hewn logs supported by peg legs) were placed in a square around the fireplace, in several rows that reached to the back of the room. 

Evidently, the school wasn't graded in the beginning either. They just simply read books until the material was learned. We have some proof of that in our collection, in the form of an arithmetic book owned by a student by the name of Henry Phillips, who studied at the academy in 1809. Check out some of the pages from his book below, and see if you could have answered some of these questions...

The cover page of the book...

One way of doing it, I guess...

What's a guinea? 

And the better question here is how much tea do you need to give, to have every pound of chocolate they're selling? That's more valuable information...


And from what I gather from asking around, Robertson Academy is still operating today. 

Nashville's First Public Schools

3. What was Nashville's first public school, after the public school system was established?

Easy one here - Hume School

Even though Nashville had some schools and academies in existence by 1850, as demonstrated above, it was still deemed necessary for Nashville to have a public school system to help educate more than just the children of wealthier families. The first steps for the town of Nashville to have this sort of system, occurred successfully on February 20th, 1852, when the Nashville Board of Alderman passed an act "to Raise Revenue for a Public School."

I say successfully because it was not the city's first attempt at opening a public school; that was actually about 30 years earlier (in September, 1821) with the opening of the "Nashville English School." Due to the fact that the school only received the children of the poorer families, the Bicentennial Chronicle book says that because they were brought out in contrast to the children of wealthier families, "...their pride was wounded, as well as that of their parents." This caused fewer and fewer children to attend the school, and it eventually closed in 2 years time. 

Before Hume School was opened, but after the act was passed to raise revenue, a study was commissioned by the City Council and conducted by none other than the school's namesake - Alfred Hume. He examined public schools in other cities and made an official report on August 26th, which became the basis for the Nashville's public school system. A few months later in May, 1853, the cornerstone for Hume School was laid on the lot purchased at the corner of Spruce (8th Ave) and Broad Streets. Also the location were Hume's former private school stood.


And soon after that, on October 14th, 1853, the City Council elected the first school board, which consisted of:

  • Francis B. Fogg (elected as President)
  • W.K. Bowling
  • R.J. Meigs
  • Allen A. Hall
  • John A. McEwen (elected as Secretary)
  • Alfred Hume (passed away on Oct. 29th, 1853 - succeeded by W.F. Bang on Nov. 26th, 1853)

And Joshua F. Pearl was selected as the first Superintendent of Schools. I'm sure that name sounds familiar, as well as Fogg and Meigs, also namesakes for other Nashville schools. Keep reading for more info about Fogg, Meigs, and Pearl Schools. 

See the first minutes available from Nov. 5th, 1854, below...

Hume School opened on February 26th, 1855, serving all grades with 12 teachers. The high school portion of the school was located in 2 large halls on the 3rd floor of the building, splitting into 2 different classes for boys and girls. Apparently some of the early subjects included Greek and Hebrew.

The entire school system closed during the Civil War, including Hume School, from 1863-65. And it was a few years after that (1874) when the growing demand for high school courses necessitated the opening of another school, hence the opening of Fogg High School. But the demand didn't end there, and by the turn of the century, the Fogg building was overcrowded. In 1909, a bond issue was authorized for the purpose of erecting a new high school building. And in 1912, after the 2-year construction on the new building was completed, the first session of the new school was held. 

I'm sure there's quite a bit more to learn about this historic school, but as I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post, I'm trying to keep it brief. I can say the obvious though, that the school is still in operation today, in the same home that Hume and Fogg Schools started in. Also, Hume Fogg is one of the schools we have quite a few yearbooks from, and also a few scrapbooks from former students, if anyone is every interested in learning more about the school's past. 

And here are a few more pictures of the school and its students as well...

Hume-Fogg Baseball team, Circa 1918


Students at Hume Fogg in 1918

4. What was the first school that the city of Nashville opened for African American students?

Though this wasn't the first school in Nashville for African American students, Meigs School was still the first opened by the city of Nashville. 

Prior to the Civil War, African Americans were, for the most part, prevented from receiving an education in the South. But that didn't stop some people from trying, including a free African American barber by the name of Alphonso M. Sumner, that lived in Nashville around the early 1800's. I'm sure Sumner wasn't the only person to open a school for African American children, but his was a successful endeavor that opened in 1833 and was adding more and more students 'til at least 1836. From 1833 to 1836, the school grew from 20 to about 200 students, including a small amount of slave children. 

There were a few other schools for African Americans as well, including the Belleview School that appears to have been a part of the public school system at the same time as Meigs, but I'm going to save discussing them for another blog post because I could keep writing for several more paragraphs, and they deserve their own post. So back to Meigs...

After the Civil War, the Freedmen's Bureau established schools after the war, among many other forms of aid they offered. Meigs was the freedmen's school opened in Nashville, 2 years after the end of the war. It was housed in a brick building that was used as a gun factory for the Confederate Army during the war, and turned over to the city by the Federal Government as an abandoned property. It was named in honor of James. L Meigs, Nashville's 2nd superintendent of public schools. 

As the number of African American students attending Meigs grew each year, the demand for another school became more and more necessary. Pearl was the next school to be built after the Board of Education appropriated funds in 1881 for two new public schools for African American students. More about Pearl below though. 

But another school was also needed since no school for African American students went above the 8th grade, and several attempts by graduates of Meigs and other African American grammar schools to attend high schools in the city was met with resistance. In response to these attempts, a meeting was called and published in the newspapers, inviting "...all who are interested in the education of the colored youth of Nashville..." to meet at the Clark Chapel, on September 14th, 1886 at 7:30. And the result of the meeting was a resolution that was presented and adopted, as well as a petition sent out, asking the City Council for the necessary appropriation to resolve the issue. 

Eventually, it was agreed to add 2 more grades at Meigs (grades 9 and 10); grade 11 came a year later and the school graduated its first class in 1888. When high school classes were moved from Meigs to Pearl in 1898, Meigs became an elementary and junior high school until 1958-59, when it became a high school again, on a grade-a-year plan. The school served all grades until 1969, when the elementary and high school were phased out. Today, it's a magnet school that serves the grades 5th - 8th.

This photo is from the 2nd grade class at Meigs, in 1892...


5. What was the second public school opened for African American Students?

Also an easy one here since I gave you the hint above - Pearl School

Today, most people recognize the name "Pearl" with Pearl-Cohn Magnet High School (official name according to the Metro Public Schools website is Pearl-Cohn Entertainment Magnet High School), since Pearl merged with Cohn School in 1983, and opened its new campus in 1986. 

But Pearl School was opened, as mentioned above, around 1881 when 150 African American students were refused admission to public school because there was no more room. The Nashville Board of Education appropriated the funds, and both Pearl and Meigs (Meigs receiving a new home) were built based on the same 2-story brick design, and both opened as grammar schools in 1883.

Pearl School was named in honor of Joshua F. Pearl, Nashville's first superintendent of schools. 

As I already mentioned above about the adding of high school grades to Meigs in 1886, and Pearl taking over those grades in 1898, this is when the school's prestigious role in the growth and development of young African American students began. The photo below (despite its unfortunate damage) shows the original first building of the high school.

Pearl received a new home in 1917-18, when they moved to a new building on 16th Ave N and Grant Street. See another photo below; again, sorry the photo is a little damaged.

Before its current home, built to merge both Pearl and Cohn High Schools, Pearl had changed locations one other time in 1936 to help manage the growth of the school's attendance; they moved to a new building at 17th Ave N and Jo Johnson, and was added onto over the next several years. Today, that building is the home of Martin Luther King, Jr. Magnet at Pearl High School. 

Though Pearl was mostly known for its prestige, with many of its graduates continuing their education in some of the nation's most elite college and universities, the school was also known for their sports' teams including their men's basketball team. This included winning state championships, more than once I believe (definitely in 1942 according to the Pearl High Voice publication we have a copy of for that year). Also, the famous 1965 match-up with Father Ryan High School, that was the first game in the South between an integrated school and an African American school. Father Ryan won the game by 1 point (52-51). 

Check out a few more photos we have from the school, including one from that game...

A view of the class in 1918...

From that 1965 historic game...

I'm sure there are several other schools I've missed, considering I tried to narrow my search range to just the town of Nashville. But I'm open to suggestion to research any others for a future blog post. Please comment below with your suggestions, questions, corrections. etc. 

Til next time, 



lucille ball


Sarah is a Program Coordinator with Metro Archives. Her interests and areas of expertise are history, reading books (of any kind), music, travel, Harry Potter, and bingeing a good comedy series. When not in Archives, she is either nose-deep in a book or planning her next trip. Learn more about the fascinating materials found at Metro Archives through their website.